architecture, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape garden, Menagerie, South Yorkshire, Temple

The Gothic Temple, Wentworth Castle, South Yorkshire

In the middle of the 18th century the Earl of Strafford was embellishing his seat at Wentworth Castle near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. A new wing was added to the mansion and the grounds were decorated with temples, columns and garden seats. Strafford asked his lifelong friend Horace Walpole for advice on an ornament for his menagerie, and this little gothic temple was the result.

The Palladian front of Wentworth Castle and to the left a glimpse of the Victorian conservatory. The restoration of this magnificent structure was completed in 2013.

The Menagerie, or Menagery, at Wentworth Castle (historically also known as Stainborough) was already well-established when Walpole was consulted. A substantial building, completed in 1717, provided a home for the keeper who looked after the ornamental birds and also provided a space for refreshments when Lord Strafford was taking his guests for tours of the park and gardens. In April 1738 ‘two good fires’ warmed a party who had been out exploring the estate, and an inventory of a few years later shows that the Menagerie House had a settee and cups and saucers for tea.

The Menagerie House at it looked in the early 20th century. It is now private homes. Postcard courtesy of a private collection.

The menagerie grounds included ponds and cascades as well as homes for the birds (there is no evidence of any other animals). In 1771 there were ornamental pheasants but a poem of 1731 shows that there was an avian presence 40 years before that:

From thence with Pleasure you may see
Strange Birds at the Menagerie,
Some Squeek, Some Cry – Some Sing, Some Squall,
Whose echo Sounds unto the hall;

In 1739 William Wentworth (1722-1791) succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Strafford of the 2nd creation. Two years later he married Lady Anne Campbell (1720-1785) and the couple’s social circle included Horace Walpole (1717-1797), creator of the gothic delight called Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. When his friends asked him to design a building for the menagerie, Walpole suggested a structure ‘in the manner of an ancient market cross’, and in particular that at Chichester in Sussex.

George Vertue, The Market Cross At Chichester, 1749. 705 mm x 525 mm. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

In 1756 Walpole’s friend Richard Bentley (1708-1782), a fellow member of the self-styled Committee of Taste based at Strawberry Hill, produced a drawing for Strafford’s masons and construction of the temple began soon after.

Richard Bentley’s design for the ‘Building in Lord Strafford’s Menagerie’. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The menagerie was Lady Anne Strafford’s domain, and her passion for the peacocks and ornamental pheasants in the grounds led Walpole (who revered Anne as both a beauty and a wit) to refer to her as ‘the lady of the menagerie’.

Lady Anne by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art, bequest of Margaret Weyerhaeuser Harmon.

Walpole visited in August 1760 to see the finished work and he admired the situation of the temple ‘on a high bank in the menagerie, between a pond and a vale, totally bowered over with oaks’. Walpole’s role in the design must have been pointed out to visitors as a traveller in 1761 noted ‘the Elegant Gothic temple designed by Mr Horace Walpole’.

The Gothic Temple with a pensive visitor. Date and photographer unknown.

Whilst Wentworth Castle was very much on the 18th century ‘tourist trail’, and is mentioned in countless travel journals, there are very few accounts of the little temple, but Arthur Young wrote a good account in 1771. He walked across a grass lawn overhung with oaks to find ‘a Gothic temple, over a little grot, which forms an arch, and together have a most pleasing effect’. Behind it was a piece of water with an island and the banks were ‘prettily planted’. The history of the chamber underneath the temple is not clear – it is not mentioned in Walpole’s correspondence and possibly pre-dates the building of the temple.

A little guidebook with the comprehensive title of Stainborough & Rockley, their Historical Associations, and Rural Attractions was published in 1853 (this is the source of the title image). By then the Menagerie wore ‘an air of neglect’ and the shrubs and trees had run wild. Some ‘traces of its former beauty’ were still visible and these included the piece of water and the gothic temple ‘on an elevated basement’, which was ‘beautifully artistic, and of elaborate character’.

The poor condition of the brick-built basement grot can clearly be seen in this image. Date and photographer unknown.

Wentworth Castle featured in Country Life in 1924 when the magazine’s Architectural Editor H. Avray Tipping described the feature as ‘somewhat ruinous’, although he was referring in particular to the grotto chamber rather than the ‘mock-mediaeval frippery’ of the temple itself. During the Second World War troops were stationed at Wentworth Castle and the story goes that the temple was used for target practice.

Barbara Jones’s pen and ink sketch of the remains of the temple, c.1950. Courtesy of a private collection.

Barbara Jones went to see the temple when she was researching for the first edition of Follies & Grottoes, published in 1953. She described the ‘little summerhouse’ as being ‘of the very best mid-eighteenth century gothic’, and she was saddened to learn that the building had been intact until the Second World War. When she saw it in the decade after the war the elegant pinnacles were gone – ‘wanton destruction’ was her conclusion. By the time the revised edition of her book was published in 1974 the temple was ‘only rubble’. Nikolaus Pevsner called the temple ‘the umbrello’ in the 1959 1st edition of The Buildings of England: Yorkshire the West Riding, and that name seems to have been adopted from that date.

The stone fragments were recorded by the National Monuments Record in 1965 and nature then covered over the remains. In 2006 Archaeological Services WYAS were commissioned to survey the collapsed structure. Happily, the masonry was found to be largely extant, and we can hope that one day the funds might be found to enable a restoration.

Much restoration work has already taken place under the auspices of the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Castle Heritage Trust which was established in 2001. The site of the Gothic temple is not publicly accessible but a sham castle, temples, obelisks, a column and extensive gardens make a visit to Wentworth Castle (not to be confused with neighbouring Wentworth Woodhouse) more than worthwhile. The house is home to the Northern College but opens for monthly tours. In 2018 the National Trust took over the management of the gardens and park

No feature on Wentworth Castle is complete without a mention of the pioneering research of Dr Patrick Eyres and Dr Michael Charlesworth: their work is gratefully acknowledged.

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13 thoughts on “The Gothic Temple, Wentworth Castle, South Yorkshire”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    Strafford? Where or what is/was Strafford? The current holder (who runs Canongate Publishing in Edinburgh) hasn’t got a clue.

    1. Editor says:

      According to Wikipedia it comes from Strafforth, a wapentake in the former West Riding. I’m sure the current holder has experienced the problem of spellcheck constantly amending Strafford to Stafford, so apologies to readers who spotted a couple of ‘Staffords’ sneak into the text, now corrected.

      1. Gwyn Headley says:

        Now I’ve got to go and look up Wapentake.

        1. Editor says:

          Hello Gwyn. Providing these little challenges is all part of the service!

  2. Gand says:

    Well that is a proper Gothic horror tale

    1. Editor says:

      But hopefully one day there might be a happy ending!

  3. Gand says:

    Well that is a proper Gothic horror tale

  4. Iain KS Gray says:

    I recall seeing the remains of the umbrello in the grounds of the castle on our first visit there.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Iain. Yes I remember the Folly Fellowship visit well – a lot has changed since then. The restoration programme has achieved so much – a great success story.

  5. Roger Taylor says:

    Home to 26 listed structures, Wentworth castle is well worth a visit and house tours are currently taking place 1 day a month. The Umbrello, is one of many follies now lost, inluding Constantines Well, Rockley Woodhouse, The smoothing iron (pyramid), the ‘ruined’ city walls at Worsborough Common (though 2 towers survive), the Fishing temple (now a pile of stone on the Serpentine),Rockley Abbey farm and a gothic arch (The Needle eye, lost to the M1 along with the Cain and Able statue).

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Roger. Yes, a sad list of losses, but all are happily documented so at least we know something of their history (others might appear here before too long). And those buildings that survive are amongst the very best of their kind. Thank you for letting me know about the house tours, I will update the text to make that clear.

  6. Simon Scott says:

    Fascinating as always, particularly interested in anything Wentworth related! Like Iain, I recall that FF trip (in the 1990s I think) and being mesmerised by the quality of the stones scattered about thinking that someone will surely try to rebuild this with its Walpole connections. Hopefully one day.
    Have not seen your “poor condition” photo before – another great find.
    Two questions relating to Wentworth Castle:
    Does anyone have an interior image of the keep at Stainborough Castle showing the plasterwork? I was asked recently and was unable to assist.
    Also, you say “all are happily documented” but I have never seen any image of the Needle Eye that ended up under the M1. Was it photographed prior to demolition? If you have anything do please share. Two Wentworth estates and two Needle Eyes – a topic for a future blog surely!

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Simon.
      I revisited the Gothic Temple at Wentworth Castle because I found the Barbara Jones drawing, but you have spurred me to give the whole site some more thought, although I’m very much aware that an expert team have covered the subject.
      Sadly the “Needle’s Eye” (I use inverted commas because this term seems to be a 19th century nickname for arches, although I am very happy to be corrected if anyone knows otherwise) remains the least known of the many wonderful landscape ornaments. It is documented in text but not visually as far as I know – but again I’m always happy to receive new information.
      I don’t remember seeing a photo of the interior of Stainborough Castle. The room was intact in living memory, but I’m not sure that the plasterwork had survived.
      Roger – can you help further?

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